This year marked Mateo Johnnie’s first St. Louis Pride as an out transgender man.
"I just love it. I love the community," the 17-year-old from St. Charles County said. "I love being able to celebrate my own individuality with so many people and just learning how to be more accepting of everyone around me."
Johnnie was one of the more than 300,000 festivalgoers who packed downtown St. Louis after a year in which the LGBTQ community — and particularly transgender youth — saw Missouri's Republican-controlled legislature place restrictions on transgender Missourians receiving health care and playing sports.
"It really just opened my eyes to how unaccepting the rest of the world is and everybody around me," Johnnie said of the restrictions, adding they set back his own transitioning journey. "I really just want to be a part of the community and make a better influence so that we can make the change [and] progress because we won't stand for this. We will continue to fight, and we will overcome."
While Republican-led states have restricted protections for LGBTQ people, Democratic-led states have expanded protections. In the Illinois legislature, the Democratic supermajority passed a trio of bills aimed to create more equity in governmental language and hiring practices and would make it easier for LGBTQ couples who resided in other states to marry in Illinois.
Missouri’s largest cities also have pushed back on the restrictions. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas signed legislation making the city a “safe haven” for gender-affirming care, and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones signed an executive order giving transgender St. Louisans additional levels of protection when it comes to city policies and procedures.
Some St. Louis Pride attendees said efforts by Illinois leaders to expand protections for the LGBTQ community are sending some people to the Illinois side of the St. Louis region.
“It's really disappointing to see the state that I grew up in say that we don't deserve rights,” said Em Koch, a 25-year-old resident of Columbia, Illinois, who was attending PrideFest with their friends. “I'm actually looking for places to live at the moment, and we're like, 'It's cheaper in Missouri, but we want to keep our rights.' It's sad that we have to think about that.”
Despite the challenging landscape, community leaders said this is a time for the queer community and its allies to come together at events like St. Louis PrideFest.
Jordan Braxton, the public relations director for Pride St. Louis and a member of the City of St. Louis’ LGBTQIA+ Advisory Board, said there isn’t much that can be compared to looking out to the Gateway Arch during the PrideFest parade and seeing a sea of supporters and flags.
“One thing that our community is, we are resilient and we are resistant,” Braxton said. “We will be out here showing the legislators and the haters out there that we will not be erased. Trans people and gay people have been around forever, and we’re not going anywhere.”